A few years ago, the Parish Council conducted a parish survey. We were looking for feedback from parishioners about their opinions of the parish and some of their hopes and dreams for us as a community. Several survey questions asked what faith formation programs parishioners might like to participate in, and one asked if the respondent would like to join a Bible Study. Sadly, less than a fifth of respondents expressed an interest in such a program. I was discouraged by that response and recognized I had work to do. I felt it was fruitless to try to start a Bible study with such little interest. First, I had to educate parishioners on the importance of reading scripture in our daily prayer life. I’ve been trying to do that in my weekly homilies. Some of you might feel I’ve been hounding you to do it.
When I encourage people to read the Bible, I sometimes get the response, “But Father, when I was in school, the Sisters told us we shouldn’t read the Bible.” To some degree, that is true. Catholics, especially children and the semi-literate, might have been discouraged from reading scripture without some supervision to protect them from misinterpreting it.
That feeling dates back to the Reformation when some Protestant Reformers preached Christianity must be based only on what is written in the scriptures. Catholics disagree with that; we base our faith on scripture and Tradition with a capital “T.” We don’t only base our faith on the written Word but also on how it has been practiced going back to the early Church.
The Catholic Church also discouraged the unsupervised reading of scripture to protect against a purely personal interpretation of the Bible. Catholics have to interpret scripture not only by what we believe it says to us but what it says to the whole Church.
We also needed to protect against a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. Some Christians fail to recognize the symbolism and metaphor often used by Bible authors. The Book of Genesis tells us God created the world in six days. Catholics don’t interpret that as six twenty-four-hour days but six days in God’s time. Likewise, the Book of Revelation says the number of saints in Heaven will be 144,000. Based on our understanding of the symbolism in Hebrew Scriptures, Catholics interpret that to mean many people and not that specifically limited number.
In response to the Reformation, the Church encouraged especially the masses of poorly educated people to practice devotions like the Rosary and the Angelus, prayer forms with a scriptural basis. If we reflect on the Mysteries of the Rosary, we understand how it tries to educate us on the crucial incidents in the life of Jesus. Catholic prayer, including the Mass, often has much scriptural foundation.
St. Jerome, who lived back in the early days of the Church and translated the Scriptures from Greek and Hebrew into Latin- the language of the ordinary people- is quoted as saying, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Jesus.” Reminded of that, as the number of literate people grew over the last Century or more, Catholics began to be encouraged to read the Bible. Sixty years ago, as a result of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church began to encourage the faithful to study scripture increasingly.
Scripture study is vital for Christians to develop their faith because it is the Word of God. As Christians, we believe the Holy Spirit inspires the Bible, and we often say the Holy Spirit guided the hand of the biblical author. By that, we don’t mean the Holy Spirit was the actual author. We don’t infer the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity came down and physically manipulated the hand of the writer. We aren’t like Muslims who believe that the angel Gabriel recited the Koran to Mohamed word for word or like the Mormons who believe the Book of Mormon was written by angels on golden scrolls and left in a cave in upstate New York. By saying the Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical authors, we mean God gave them the wisdom and insight to reveal God using the normal writing process.
Scripture is so important to Catholics because it is the Word of God, and God speaks to the faithful in every age through the Scriptures. We need to know scripture to share our faith and help others build a relationship with God. All three of our readings today point out that fact, and they tell us how we need knowledge of the Bible and an openness to the Holy Spirit if we want to share our faith and help make the world a better place to live.
Philip especially shows us in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles how his knowledge of the scriptures helped the Church to grow. This Philip is the deacon and not the Apostle. From last week’s reading, we might remember he was one of the seven Greek disciples chosen to relieve the Apostles from distributing food and other necessities to the widows in the Church. One of the other deacons, named Stephen, angered the religious authorities, and they stoned him to death. Today we heard that it sparked a religious persecution that scattered many disciples.
Philip left Jerusalem and moved to Samaria, between Judea and Galilee. We will remember much animosity existed between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Jews considered the Samaritans as half breeds because they had both some Jewish and some Gentile characteristics. Although Philip wasn’t an Apostle and didn’t have the mandate to preach, he loved the Scriptures and was so excited about his relationship with Jesus that he couldn’t help but do it. He preached to the Samaritans, and they were the first group of non-Jewish people who embraced the gospel.
The Samaritans were eager to embrace this new faith because they were excited to learn of Jesus’ message that God is a God of love. They were relieved to hear that Jesus taught God wasn’t a god to be feared that needed appeasing but a God who wanted to share love with them. They were eager to be healed by God both physically and spiritually. Most of all, they embraced Philip’s message of joy and hope. They were excited to learn that God wanted a better future for them.
Like the Samaritans, we need to learn the scriptures to find encouragement in our faith. The author of the First Letter of Peter, which we heard today, tells us we need to know scripture to share the faith. As Christians, we should be different from others. We need to be ready to defend our faith not aggressively but out of a sense of joy and desire for others to enter into a relationship with Jesus that brings them the fullness of life.
Again today, I want to encourage you to include the reading and reflection on scripture as part of your daily prayer. You have often heard me suggest starting Scripture reading with the Acts of the Apostles. It is an excellent place to begin scripture study because it is enjoyable reading. It is one of the longer books of the New Testament, but if we break it down and read and reflect on it over a week or so, it is easy. Luke wrote it in a narrative style that is easy to understand and tells us of the triumphs and struggles faced by the early Christians. After you have finished Acts, then move on to read one of the Gospels.
If you don’t own a Bible or if your Bible is a King James version or another one translated back in the 16th Century and is full of “thys and thous”, buy an updated, more modern version. Here at Holy Redeemer we use the New American Version, a Catholic Bible translation. Try to get what is referred to as a Study Bible. It has many footnotes that give you insight into Bible history and background and helps make scripture more understandable.
Over the summer, the Parish Council and other parish members will evaluate some faith-building programs to offer the parish so you can deepen your faith. It won’t necessarily be Bible study but a program that will likely prepare parishioners to form small groups using scripture to help us grow in faith. I hope you will be enthusiastic about participating in our program and will encourage other parishioners to do the same.